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Science for Parks conference, final part

6. Where has science in the national parks come from and where will it be going?

The Science for Parks, Parks for Science conference in Berkeley, March 25-27, 2015, took stock of the accomplishments of the past hundred years and pointed the way that national parks should take in the future. Scientists and budding scientists presented sessions, discussions, and posters about the work they have done and what is soon to come for the parks.

Taking in any of the more than one hundred poster sessions on Thursday afternoon turned out to be impossible for me, but the conference program listed posters on such topics as invasive species, pollution, environmental planning, and engaging the public.

Nearly a hundred short presentations took place concurrently on Friday morning in eight different rooms, meaning I could only attend a dozen of them in the three-and-one-half hours allotted. I chose to learn about light pollution—NPS scientists study this in some of today’s 407 discrete park units. Then I learned about what they’ve been doing since 1953 at the University of Wyoming / National Park Service Research Center in Grand Teton National Park. And I listened to the talks about analyzing visitors’ winter use of Yellowstone.

Themes that resonate in my mind as I sum up the conference are (1) the importance of children’s gaining experience in the out-of-doors and (2) the efforts being made by many to engage the public, to encourage “citizen science.” Two of the many mentions of the first theme were when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told us that the best classrooms are the ones without walls, and E. O. Wilson reminisced about his days of collecting insects and then snakes in southern Alabama.

In connection with citizen science, speaker John Francis, the vice president for science of the National Geographic Society, titled his talk, “The World is a Park.” He told us how, since 2007, in eight different parks, students and community members have joined scientists for a 24-hour species count. These events have taken place from Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This year’s event will take place in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on May 15 and 16. Participants age eight and over explore and inventory plants, animals, birds, fungi, fish, and any other organisms they find that make up a park. Downloading the app will aid in documenting species.

The task of closing out this summit conference fell to steering committee chairman, Steve Beissinger, UC–Berkeley Professor of Conservation Biology, speaking on “1915, 2015, 2115, The Fall and Rise of Science in the Parks.” Epitomizing how science works in three short equations, he showed us:

Data + Theory = Model (or Hypothesis)
Model + [more] Data = Predictions]
Predictions + New Data = Test

Then he drew arrows leading back from the third line to the others, showing how the model feeds back on itself. And he added the importance of peer reviewers to the scientific mix.

Professor Beissinger also traced scientific development or the rise of science in the parks from 1916, when first NPS Director Stephen Mather invested in infrastructure (but not science) through George Wright’s assistance in establishing a wildlife division in 1928, to the 1941 decimation of all science in the parks due to World War II. But in 1963 a National Academy of Science report again stimulated research, and finally in 1999 Cooperative Ecosystem Study Units were established in several universities, with the beginning of inventory and monitoring programs soon after.

Beissinger reminded us of suggestions made by other speakers as to how to steward the parks through the inevitable changes they face. Pointing out that we cannot wait for today’s fourth graders to grow up and vote wisely, he joked that perhaps we could engage with some of today’s voters by having a “Tea Party Day”: give such voters free park passes and perhaps a crumpet for each!

The speech ended with a few practical ideas Beissinger thinks are needed, such as increasing the number of NPS biologists and removing barriers that make research difficult for scientists. Berkeley may aid by developing a “Center for Parks, People, and Biodiversity.”

And the conference was over.

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